When we first came to America a long time ago, Ngoai, my maternal grandmother, suffered a sort of crisis of faith. She prayed and lit incense sticks and tapped the copper gong to call our ancestors' spirits, but she was no longer convinced that her prayers were heard.
What caused Grandma's consternation was the fact that Grandpa, who had died during the Vietnam War, had never once visited her in her dreams in America.
"Child," Grandma would sometimes ask me, "do you think ghosts can cross the ocean?"
"I think so, Grandma," I would answer quickly, if only to make her feel better -- but how would I know? All I knew was that back home, Grandma often had dreams in which Grandpa would come and talk with her.
At times it seemed as if they were still a couple living together, those years near the end of the war. When Grandma lost her jade bracelet, for instance, she prayed to Grandpa and he came into her dream and told her where to look. She found it the next day.
Another time Grandma, who had given up writing poetry when she was young, surprised everyone at breakfast by reciting a mellifluous ode to spring and autumn. When we applauded she pointed to the dark rosewood altar and said, "I had help. You should compliment Grandpa as well."
The last time Grandma had seen Grandpa in her dreams was a few months before the end of the war. "You will go on a very long trip and we won't meet for a long time," he predicted. Grandma was perplexed. She couldn't imagine going anywhere but to join him and our ancestors in the spirit world. No one doubted Grandma's dreams. We accepted the presence of ghosts in Vietnam the way we prayed and talked to the dead daily at our ancestral altar. Grandpa's prediction, sadly, came true after communist tanks rolled into Saigon and my family and I had to flee our homeland.
Can ghosts cross the ocean? When I was young, her question struck me as a bit eerie. Now I find it tragic. Once we were bound to the land in which our ancestors were buried and we lived comfortably with ghosts and the idea of death and dying. In America our old way of life quickly faded.
America looks to the future, and not the past; it is moved by the ideas of progress and opportunity. And American people move about, from job to job, from city to city, restlessly. Indeed, where can one's ancestral ghosts dwell in a world of humming computers and concrete freeways and shiny high-rises?
As time passed, Grandma's question came to seem irrelevant for most of her grandchildren -- we have gone on to become modern, cosmopolitan Americans, after all. These days, in front of the family altar, with all those faded photos of the dead staring down at me, I often feel oddly removed, as if staring not at the present, but a piece of my distant past. Having fled so far from Vietnam, I can no longer imagine what to say, or to whom I should address my prayers, or for that matter what promises I could possibly make to my dead ancestors, since the most sacred one of all -- that I should live and die in my own homeland -- has already been broken.
Perhaps I'll never know if ghosts really cross oceans or not, but in one of the last conversations I had with her, when I visited Grandma in her convalescent home, I learned that the question was, for her at least, resolved.
"I was sitting in the garden yesterday," Grandma told me in a happy and excited voice that I hadn't heard for a long time, "and there was this butterfly that kept flying about me. Suddenly, I just blurted out and asked, "Husband, if it is you then come land on my shoulder." And it did, on both sides, and it stayed for a long, long time."
A few days after my visit, Grandma collapsed and fell into a coma. The doctors said there was little chance of recovery. "She could go anytime now," they warned.
Yet when I think of my grandmother, it's not a decrepit old body sustained by a respirator and IV units that I see. The vision that I keep safe is admittedly a sentimental one, and the one I did not see: A gentle old lady sits serenely in the rose garden at dusk, smiling happily. A flock of butterflies alights upon her bony frame, their wings forming a golden blanket for her in the last light.
New America Media editor Andrew Lam is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" where the above essay was excerpted. (Heyday Books, 2010), and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, which won a Pen American award in 2006. His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," is due out in march 2013.
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